VR experience “We live in an Ocean of Air” – reviewed by a guy who won’t shut up about the new Avengers film.
** Warning. This incredibly serious review is completely, 100% filled to the brim with spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War. If you have no knowledge of the Avengers films, or Marvel Films in general – nice! **
“What would it have been like to experience “The Snap?” is exactly not the question Marshmellow Lazer Feast (MLF) were seeking to answer when they first conceived of their new VR artwork “We live in an ocean of air” currently on display at the Saachi gallery, London.
A trancendental piece of computational art, it made me feel exactly like Spiderman as his face dissolved into grey dust and blew away in the wind.
I can only assume he was experiencing a sense of awe, wonder and tranquility as he was able to witness the world beneath the world. At least right after he stopped looking into Tony Stark’s tearful visage and succumbed to the cataclysmic pain of molecular disintegration.
“We live in an ocean of air” is a multi-participant VR experience that is set within a forest, at the base of a huge tree which seems to lack any visible signs of damage due to close proximity to the warring hordes of Thanos.
Participants are invited to line up and put on a “rucksack” which bears no small resemblance to the size-shifting armour worn by Ant Man as he ventures into the Quantum Realm. A heart rate monitor is clipped to the ear, wrist sensors and a helmet-mounted leap motion are used to detect location and hand gestures.
Finally, the goggles are strapped on and a voiceover explains the next procedure, which is to monitor your breath and exhale at the correct moment, which for me was when Starlord let his emotions overcome him as he tried to punch Thanos in the face, right when they almost had the gauntlet off. I mean – what are you DOING, stick to the plan Starlord, I thought that was your whole thing?! Your punches achieve nothing!
As you exhale your breath is represented by a fluid cloud of particles which roils and unfurls like ink being dropped into water, or like the clouds preceding Thanos’ interdimensional portal. The clouds respond to your motion, and the interaction and play with them is a highlight of the experience.
Other users may interact with the clouds of particles you create. This emergent play leads to a sort of gestural language, and the disembodied figurations of the other users are imbued with haunting un-being, much like Bucky right after he calls for Steve Rogers and drops the AK 47 before dissolving off the face of the earth.
The scene rises up and the participants now flow inside the trunk of the giant tree. The naturalistic surfaces give way to an abstract rendering of energy currents, leading from up the roots of the tree all around the space and up into the sky.
At no point during being surrounded by the glowing fibres of the tree’s inner life do I hear “I am groot!” so I say it softly to myself. The breath sensor picks up the exhalation and creates a small cloud of blue dust that blows away in the virtual wind. I’m not allowed to cry in these goggles.
“..Ocean of Air” aims to make visible the implicit web of relations we find ourselves in – with nature, and each other – and through this explicit materiality highlight our mutual sense of purpose and need.
In his own way, this is exactly the type of gesture Thanos was attempting to make through his intergalactic genocide.
On balance, I think that Ocean of Air is a more successful attempt at making this point. I feel like sharing this experience with a collection of still breathing humans and the alien post-phenomelogical perspective of the environment really resonated with me. I’m sure that being reduced into atomic nothingness and then possibly being transported to the soul stone via the Quantum Realm would likewise provide a sense of connection and universality but it does look uncomfortable.
Osmose (1995) – Char Davies – 16 min.
Many have said that Thanos is just a poor copy of Darkseid, and I definitely disagree with that. I do, however, see a similarity between the work of Char Davies and the work produced by MLF. Osmose, a VR piece made back in 1995, is very similar in both topic and structure. The technological innovations from the last 20 years have made the new work much more conventionally impressive, but I would argue with the enhanced sense of dasein afforded by the new tech actually highlights the separation between “real” and “virtual”. With all the sensors attached and instructions given, I was Dr Strange, stuck in the mirror dimension, pre-occupied with bumping into someone within my real world.
That does not discount from the value of the work MLF have produced. It’s inspiring seeing VR in a gallery context, and it can only be the precursor for more exciting things to come, somewhat like Avengers Endgame which is out in 6 weeks and is completely unrelated.